I've been preparing all year for this game.
Literally. I previewed the Huskers' offense and defense before the season began, analyzed the roster, predicted the move to a running-based attack centered around Martinez, and have both watched and written about their games. The hope was that we'd be spending this week discussing one of the most exciting and anticipated regular season match ups of recent memory.
Nebraska did their part. Unfortunately, Texas has not.
Nevertheless, even with the Longhorns limping into Lincoln, this is an exceptionally exciting match up, with everything on the line for Nebraska, in what will be the final meeting between these two teams in Big 12 play.
Texas won't be winning any trophies this year, but yet another win in Lincoln would be the next best thing.
NEBRASKA OFFENSIVE PREVIEW
QUARTERBACK: When I wrote before the season that I thought Nebraska should and would go with Martinez at QB, I had his upside in mind, but the redshirt freshman has exceeded even the most wildly optimistic expectations. He's averaging 147 yards per game on the ground (4th nationally), at an obscene 10.8 yards per carry (1st nationally), rushing for 12 touchdowns along the way (also 1st nationally).
For some perspective, during his junior year Vince Young ran for 81 yards per game (53rd nationally), averaging 6.8 yards per carry (12th), scoring 12 touchdowns (23rd). That's right, Taylor Martinez has as many rushing touchdowns through his first 5 games as a redshirt freshman quarterback as Vince Young had in 13 games as a fourth-year junior.
Got your attention yet?
Is Martinez already as good as was Young? Hell no. First of all, Vince Young also led the nation in passing efficiency, throwing for 240 yards per game and 26 touchdowns. Second, Vince Young could pick up a piece of coal and say, "Diamond, bitch," and thirty thousand years would elapse in the blink of an eye. (Heat and pressure were his thing, y'know?) Third, and most important, when Texas needed every last bit of a 30-40 for 267 yards, plus 19 carries for 200 yards and 3 TDs performance, on the biggest stage imaginable, Vince Young delivered just that.
And that, other than to get Texas fans attention that this kid is damn good, is the other reason to bring up Vince Young. Martinez has never faced anything like what he's going to face on Saturday, and it's not a given that he'll be at his most brilliant when it matters most. Not only will he be facing what is by far the stiffest defense that he's faced to date, but he can't help but be aware just how much is riding on this game. For this season. For the Nebraska fans.
Returning to the field, Martinez has acquitted himself well as a passer so far in a limited role. He's only throwing it about 13 times per game, but he's completing 61 percent of his passes, and doing damage when he does, averaging an impressive 10.3 yards per attempt. Watching him against K-State compared to Western Kentucky, he's still very much raw as a passer, but he's decidedly more comfortable, the latter being the one that matters more.
As Martinez has grown more comfortable, his offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has properly expanded the way the passing game is used to complement the overall offensive attack. Martinez isn't substantially better a passer today than he was five weeks ago -- that kind of growth typically develops year-to-year -- but his being substantially more comfortable allows Nebraska to be more dynamic in what and how they attack a defense.
Everything is keyed around their running game, and if they have even reasonable success with it on Saturday, I fully expect Martinez to finish with no more than 15 passing attempts. If you think about this game as a coach for Nebraska, the thing is that even if Will Muschamp's unit does a solid job against your run game, limiting you to production that's only going to net 15-20 points, you absolutely embrace that unless and until the Texas offense gives you a reason to think you need to gun for more. For Nebraska, it's not so much "conservative" to load up on the rushing game; it's prudent, because it (1) is your strength and (2) minimizes the opportunity for a backbreaking mistake from a pick six or a costly sack and fumble. You run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball, and to the extent you're on track to put some points on the board doing so, you force Texas to match you offensively, and limit the opportunity for Texas' stronger unit to make big plays of its own.
Nebraska has shifted their formations to suit their multiple spread rush attack, and you'll see the splits in their offensive line similar to (but less drastic than) those we were used to seeing from Mike Leach's Air Raid squads. One of the elements that makes the offense Shawn Watson has developed tricky to defend is the difficulty in deciding upon whom your linebackers should be basing their reads. If your backers are keyed on the offensive line, you're in good shape to deal with both straightforward runs and misdirection given away by pulling linemen. But Nebraska's offensive attack has punishing counters for that approach -- like when, for example, they'll block down the line one way, then run a veer option play away from it, leaving your playside defensive end in a no-win choice: step to the running back and Martinez keeps and turns it upfield, or step to Martinez and your end's angle on the tailback is futile.
On the flipside, if you key your linebackers on the quarterback, you're effectively positioned to deal with the zone read and veer, but more vulnerable to the rest. What's impressive about what Shawn Watson and Nebraska is that Nebraska is genuinely multiple -- that is, adaptable -- and is both highly capable of and effective in running a variety of plays out of the same/similar formations. I'd love to see the numbers 2005 Vince Young would have put up in this offense -- 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns isn't out of the realm of possibilities.
RUNNING BACK: Complementing Martinez in the rushing game are the senior Roy Helu, Jr. and sophomore Rex Burkhead. If you've been following along with these write ups, you know that I was quick to retract my preseason skepticism about Burkhead, whose acceleration and versatility I underrated. He's clearly a gamer -- the football equivalent of a gym rat -- and Watson does an impressive job taking advantage of the different ways he can be deployed. The Huskers aren't afraid to use him as a normal rushing tailback, send him out to catch passes, sneak him in to the Wildcat, or run a play in which he runs wide before tossing a pass.
I speculated before the season that Nebraska's coaches would be conservative with their usage of Roy Helu, Jr. early in the season to keep him as fresh and healthy as possible for the contests in which he would be most needed, and they've done exactly that, the junior having toted it just 51 times through the first 5 games. He's made the most of his carries, racking up 8.1 yards per carry and 5 touchdowns, and like Cedric Benson in 2004 he's enjoying the spoils of playing alongside a dangerous rushing QB.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Along the line, Nebraska has taken a solid step forward from last year, despite some injuries and without any substantial upgrades in talent. Most impressive have been the guards, Keith Williams and Ricky Henry, followed by tackle DJ Jones, whose performance is finally better matching his potential. As noted before the season, center Mike Caputo is undersized, but he's quick and he works for it. Among all the match ups, I'm most keen on seeing whether Randall and Okafor can make Caputo an afternoon-long problem for Nebraska.
This group is not exceptionally strong, but they're nimble, they're cohesive, and most importantly, they execute with authority and purpose. Ricky Henry is probably the best example, and a testament to the idea that coaching and development can and do matter in these regards. This is a guy who a year ago was merely adequate but, while no more leaping off the page as an excellent NFL prospect this year than last, is performing at a level that, if sustained, will land him on some All-Conference teams. He's as solid as you could hope a guy to be, and he finishes his blocks with a sense of determination sorely lacking from our own linemen of late.
All told, this is a group that knows what it's supposed to be doing and performs accordingly. The task on Saturday is to beat them in gaps enough that they lose some of that authority and purpose. The battle up front is to get them on their heels -- get them to hesitate, even a little. It could make a big, decisive difference.
WIDE RECEIVERS: As noted before, if Nebraska is running the ball with even modest success, the passing game just won't be a big factor in this game, but the personnel are still worth discussing, because even if Nebraska's able to rush the ball for 80 percent of their plays, the receivers do play a role in the running game. This is a unit with size, strength, and willingness to block, and our DBs will be challenged to work for the assist in rush support.
Niles Paul is the most polished of the group, a guy who would rack 1,000 yards and 15 scores if he played for Oklahoma State this year. His top-end speed is very good -- a bit short of elite -- and he's both strong and (when he's engaged and mentally concentrating) sure. He has a tendency to get bored and lose focus -- perhaps understandable under the circumstances -- but when he's focused and disciplined, he can and will make you pay if you sleep on him. While I think he's coverable one-on-one, the difficulty that arises lies in the necessity of your DBs to step up and assist in stopping the run game. Very few DBs are capable of wearing both hats well, but we'll need Williams and the Browns to give us just that.
Junior wideout Brandon Kinnie is nominally the second receiver, but I think I fear his big play potential even more so than Paul. Kinnie is a very tall, long receiver who like Malcolm Williams is deceptive in the amount of ground that he covers across his somewhat awkward, loping gait. It's easy to take wrong angles on him and his ability to put his physical attributes to work in creating separation is finally beginning to ripen. I'm looking to Chykie Brown for this match up, and it'll be a great opportunity for him to deliver the kind of performance that makes him attractive to the NFL. He's got the size and length to deal with Kinnie in coverage, but will have to be physical and aggressive to be helpful in run support and any sloppy mistakes are likely to be highly visible big plays.
The last name to know is TE/WR Mike McNeil, whose easiest comp is probably the Indianapolis Colts' Dallas Clark. McNeil isn't exactly a burner, but he moves well and is more athletic than you'd imagine. He's got fantastic hands, is easy to lose track of, and gets used in smart ways that tend to punish overly-run-oriented safeties. That's an area of weakness on this Texas defense, and if we're doing well with the run in part because of work Vaccaro and Scott are doing, you'll see Shawn Watson try to make us pay for that with McNeil.
What's this all boil down to for Will Muschamp? I'm focused on the following five points:
1. Disruption up the middle. This is a fast Texas defense, and if you're forced to run out before you can run up, you're in trouble. I'm worried as a Nebraska fan if Randall and Okafor -- who's coming on exceptionally fast -- are shooting gaps and causing backfield disruption like their names are Lamarr Houston.
2. Disciplined, physical secondary support. Too often against UCLA, our safeties missiled up into the pile, which is counterproductive. We'll need our DBs to be physical and aggressive, but everyone has to stay within their defined roles and purposes. That's a lot easier said than done, but Nebraska is very well equipped to exploit blind plowing.
3. Improved play from our safeties. Riding the coattails of that previous point, this is a different game than the one we won last year, when Blake Gideon was able to play center field against a crappy Zac Lee passing the ball. This year, we need our strong safety wearing multiple hats, and all of them well. He was effective as Earl Thomas's roaming safety net last year. We need more than that this year. Can he give it to us? And if not, will he continue to play every snap? And are Scott and Vaccaro experienced enough to make a difference?
4. Rattle Martinez. This one's tricky, because if we were feeling good about our offense, I think I'd recommend precisely the opposite tact -- making Martinez earn it. There are two problems with that approach, however. First, twice we've seen our defense left out on the field for long stretches at a time, and that's precisely what you want from the opposing vantage point. And second, it just doesn't seem prudent to be content with trying to make Martinez grind out 20 points when that may be plenty to win it.
To the extent one sees it that way, the better approach is to try and throw Martinez off his game early. You risk giving up the big play, and that's especially frightening given that the one weakness of Muschamp defenses has tended to be slow starts, but if there's one thing that's sure to give Texas a good chance in this one, it's Martinez struggling. If we can introduce hesitation and caution in him early, all the better.
5. Red zone efficiency. The danger with trying to get after Martinez is that our aggression increases the possibility of getting burned on big plays, but so long as they don't go for touchdowns, we can live with a few if when Nebraska finds itself in the red zone, they're forced to turn to the air to score six. That plays to our strengths and increases our opportunities to make a Martinez-rattling play.
And that, really, is what this boils down to defensively. Can Texas be a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage without allowing Nebraska to make us pay for that aggression with six points? If so, this will be interesting, especially if we succeed in forcing Martinez into a few costly mistakes. On the flipside, the smoother the sailing for Nebraska, the gloomier Texas's prospects, even if Nebraska's achieving only modest success. That'll be enough if our offense isn't forcing them to gun for more.